The Small School Movement in Oakland, CA
last updated May 27, 2007

by Kathy Emery

The following tells the story of how the Oakland California community attempted to transform the school district into one of small schools.  These are the notes I took when I attended a conference of grassroots parent organizations at Temple University. Following the notes are updated stories as to what has happened in Oakland since 2003.

Organizing for Educational Excellence Institute

August 5-9, 2003

Research for Democracy, Temple University Center for Public Policy.

The presenters:

BayCES (Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools)
OCO (Oakland Community Organizations)
OEA (Oakland Educators Association)
OUSD (Oakland Unified School District)


BAYCES PRESENTATION IN THE MORNING: 10 years ago, we began to organize parents.  Parents wanted to have small schools.  But when we went to the teachers, they were not interested.  Parents then opted to create charters.  This forced the teachers to change their minds about small school reform and they wanted to talk to us about it.  We have learned that small school reform has to be district wide.  And that autonomy over budget and hiring is key (small is not enough).  Small schools can create community but they need help in doing so.  We need high standards around reading and math but also around critical thinking as well.

During the first five years of our reform effort, we got 10,000 students (out of 48,000) into small schools.  BayCES focused on what research says really works, eg, small schools need to have six areas of autonomy: governance, curricula and instruction, facilitates, schedule, budget and hiring.  But with autonomy comes accountability in these six areas.

The district has to be redesigned to support small schools, eg, the flatlands should no longer subsidize the hill schools.  State formulas need to be changed.  Our vision is a network of small autonomous schools supported by the district.

OCO – provides the political will
BayCES – provides the technical expertise
OUSD – provides service and support

Result of reform: must be equitable (outcomes equal regardless of race, language or zip code); autonomous (local decision making); and accountable (schools must be responsible for outcomes).

We believe the tipping point (no turning back, ie small schools no longer a model of reform but what the district will become) will be when 25 percent of the students are in small schools.

Obstacles that need to be dealt with: 

Q:  how do you ensure that tracking doesn’t take place within a school?

Q: what if there is no school in the person’s neighborhood that focuses on the student’s interest?

A:  they will travel to the school they want to go to.

OCO PRESENTATION:   When we started thinking about school reform, we looked at a situation in which the district, teachers and parents all wanted the same goals, but the school system wasn’t going there.  We believed this was due to strategic differences among the three groups as well as due to the pressure of state mandates (particularly the testing requirements).

We decided that OCO was the only organization that could create the political will to develop strategic partnerships among teachers, parents and the district.  This was done by getting parents to talk, in a one-on-one situation, about their concerns and pain around the issue of their children’s educational experience.  Then OCO was able to go to teachers and the district and say, “people want this, help them get it.”  We went to the superintendent, Dennis Chaconas, who agreed – this was a key step.  Then we hired a shared organizer (half time with OCO and half time with BayCES) who met, one on one, with 400 teachers asking them, “what’s important to you about education?”  In this way, we got 400 teachers on our side.

Next step was to create model schools.  These schools made the district interact differently from what they were used to.  These schools began to train the district to become better at support and service – eg.  Stop losing applications!!!  When the district learned how to be effective at supporting the work being done in these model schools, we said to the district, “so, if you can do it with these schools, why not with every school in the district?”  The district answered, “ we don’t have the capacity.”  At this point, as a parent organization, you want to be able to say to the district, “then find it.”   In our case, the district “found it” but it wasn’t what we wanted, so we had to continue to fight.  In this fight,  we all learned a great deal from each other.  We had bi-monthly meetings with district officials.  This is how we developed friends within the district administration so when the state took over the district and replaced the superintendent, Chaconas, with a state appointed czar – Dr. Ward – we still had connections with the district staff.  Chaconas had set up, at our request an Office of School Reform, funded by money that BayCES was able to get from foundations (Gates Foundation).  The deal: district provides the staff if BayCES finds the money.  Even so, this Office was marginalized by the rest of the district offices.  Yet, since we had direct and regular access to the superintendent we were able to make sure that every department in the district made opening small schools its major function (because Chaconas told them it was).

BAYCES: Key variable: BayCES has complete control over GATES money – $12-18 million (which also caused problems in that BayCES became a target for every disgruntled group in Oakland )

BayCES provided the incubation period for the development of small school designs. – oversaw and established rules and regulations for the RFP process.  One dilemma was whether it was right for BayCES to impose its ideology upon the development of school designs.  We didn’t want to lie about what we knew.

When developing the incubation stages, we learned from our own  experience.  The first year of issuing an RFP, we offered a series of workshops to help design teams write proposals.   We only offered critical feedback on the submitted proposals.  This, however, didn’t get the results we wanted.  So, the next time we called for proposals, we told the design teams, in a workshop format, that this is what the research says works.  We still didn’t  get the results we wanted.  The third time around, we required that the school designs deal with Darling-Hammond’s “ten topic areas” and threw in a little BayCES ideology as well (eg history of how oppressive public education has been – eg eliminating the culture of Indians).  We also required that the core design team include parents, those who will work in the school and a leader.   We wanted to see instruction designed around a core curriculum – no electives.  We wanted a powerful core curriculum that would close the achievement gap.  We forced the design teams to attend district led workshops so they would understand how to do a budget, how to develop a concrete implementation plan.

Meanwhile, we have partnered with local community colleges – CSU at Hayward – to help their administration credential programs produce the kinds of principals who have what BayCES wants them to have. [ notetaker: compare this to the incubation of superintendents, around the high stakes testing agenda, by the Broad Foundation– the people who produced Rojas and Ackerman]

The foundations of successful change are 1. building relations of trust (which requires norms of discussion that foster honesty about issues) and 2. using the “cycle of inquiry” – using disaggregated data and asking why?  (eg why are only boys being kicked out of class?)

Thursday Afternoon: OCO and BayCES – How do we create the district relationship that we want?

-       reform must be district wide (otherwise reforms are elitist)

-       agree on “student achievement” . . .but there are state mandates, which are divisive, so recognize you are in a context --- global, national, state, district

-       focus on the student, rally around the student’s heart and mind, teach students how they learn

-       system is designed to fail students, to divide communities

Why partnerships: capacity, communication (unified stance), sustain reform through crisis, blur lines between stakeholders

When we interviewed teachers, we learned that they wanted autonomy over curriculum; principals wanted to be able to pick their staff and determine their budget priorities.

To compete in a market (vouchers, charters) you have to have power locally.

You can’t be autonomous without redesigning the district

After the state takeover of OUSD, there was a crisis—our vision was threatened and there was a lot of finger pointing (re who lost the $80 million).  To save the situation, OCO mobilized 2000 people to meet with the state superintendent, state senators and mayor to tell them that the community needed to be part of the state takeover discussion.  For six months, people went to Sacramento to defend themselves against the accusation of incompetence (ie, they “lost $80 million).  We proved that we were organized, numerous and firmly behind a vision.  We argued that change comes from the community.  We demonstrated that the only way to increase revenue is to reform the system.  The OUSD is losing students and thus losing revenue.  The only way to halt the declining revenue (which cut backs can never do) is to reform the school so students/families will stop abandoning the schools.

So, when the state legislation defining the takeover was finally written, it included language that endorsed small schools.  Ward committed to district-wide implementation  and keeping autonomies intact.

We hired parents from the community as paraprofessionals.

A comprehensive chronology of CA state takeovers of schools, 1978-2003

Oakland since 2003:

Oakland school leaders challenge the legality of the state takeover, May 21, 2004

Discussion at the CES Fall Forum, November 13, 2004 among BayCES (Steve Jubb), OEA (Craig Gordon), Debbie Meier and Dan French (Center for Collaborative Education, Boston) and various members of the audience. The Discussion reveals how "soft money" (corporate foundation money) has co-opted BayCES and transformed real systemic reform around small schools into a very devisive and unequal system. Notice when Jubb dismisses Gordon's challenge as "rhetorical" that reform is now top-down in Oakland instead of bottom-up. BayCES people have become bureaucrats who no longer want to deal with the big picture: the shrinking public sphere (underfunding) and the decision-making process (undemocratic). If they did, they would have to bite the hand that feeds them, which is why no equitable reforms will come from corporations, only from a social movement.

Ward can't seem to do any better than Chaconas, March 11, 2005

From the dominant media but framed by Susan Ohanian, December 15, 2005

Ward leaves Oakland for San Diego June 30, 2006

And why was there a state takeover?, July 6, 2007